By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
Washington D.C., is a city filled with monuments built to honor leadership. Jeri Ingram, a 43-year-old single mom born in the nation’s capital, follows that tradition. Working behind the scenes, she might not ever see a statue built in her likeness, yet that doesn’t detract from Ingram’s mission or her accomplishments.
Hers is a hometown story of success, of helping hundreds of kids from D.C. better their lives.
Ingram attended public schools in Montgomery County, Md., and learned the game as a public parks kid starting at the age of 9 at Anacostia Park, which was part of the National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) network. One of the founders of NJTL, Arthur Ashe, saw potential in the young Ingram after she qualified and participated in a tournament at Forest Hills, N.Y. The iconic US Open and Wimbledon champion would become her mentor.
“I wouldn’t say that he was my coach, but whenever I was around him, he helped me with my game tremendously,” said Ingram.
In high school, she became was the first undefeated tennis athlete in state history, going 106-0. At 16, she finished with a No. 6 singles and No. 1 doubles USTA national ranking. Following junior competition she attended the University of Maryland, where she played No. 1 for the women’s tennis team; she was undefeated in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) was an All-ACC player. Ingram graduated once more, playing on the Women Tennis Association (WTA) Tour beginning in 1989 for a period of eight years.
Ingram actively sought any role a tennis ambassador could assume. In her words, she “always appreciated her opportunities” and took the time to give back to the sport during her pro career; she participated in inner-city rallies, programs and exhibitions, gave inspirational speeches to juniors, and offered coaching and instruction to players of all levels. She retired in 1997 and went back to school to earn a degree in business administration, planning for the next phase of her tennis life.
“I knew that I wanted to help people,” said Ingram, today the tennis director at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center (SETLC) in Washington, D.C. “I’m always seeking that person that really wants to grab onto tennis, to channel it to make a difference within themselves.
“This is where I should be.”
Ingram is beyond busy these days. With the aid of grants provided via USTA Serves, she’s overseeing a year-long remodeling of the SETLC grounds: an indoor-outdoor hybrid, replacing the old courts with 13 state-of-the-art courts including the center’s first clay court, along with a new fitness center.
SETLC continues to vault young children and teens to higher ground 13 years after it’s opening in April 2001. More than 5,000 kids have received tennis instruction and academic tutoring, and 45 have gone on to earn scholarships to colleges such as Georgetown, Penn State, Old Dominion, Trinity and Catholic University.
“We have our own education curriculum, even putting it into action during our summer camps,” said Ingram.
“It’s computer lab training, reading and also team building exercises. Tennis teaches so much to the kids and keeps them active, and then the classroom time reinforces personal responsibility and values.”
At the same time, through D.C.’s Parks and Recreation Department, Ingram manages 14 individual programs as part of her newest role a tennis manager for the city of Washington D.C., with a strong focus on youth. She’s pulling in younger kids from NJTLs all around the region for monthly Play Days to teach the fundamentals of the sport. Her own daughters, Bailey, 8, and Brieana, 6, are two of the hundreds of children enjoying Play Days.
“They want to play, which is the biggest thing,” said Ingram of her daughters. “They love being in the environment. It’s funny because they get what mommy is doing now, but they don’t really have a grasp on what I used to do in playing professionally. Right now, they think they’re the players in the family, which is perfectly fine with me.”
Through her work, Ingram made a close friend in Alanna Broderick, herself a decorated college star at ACC rival school Miami (Fla.). Broderick, who now works at the USTA national headquarters, served as director of community tennis development for the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section from 2009 to 2013 and saw firsthand the positive change Ingram brought by making herself constantly available to young players.
“Jeri’s lived and breathed tennis, from every possible angle,” said Broderick. “She saw an opportunity to get an education through tennis and then took it further, being fortunate to travel the world while playing professionally. Yet it all led back home, to D.C.
“With Jeri, her every day is passion combined with hustle. Naturally, she’s awesome on the court with the players, but she’s put so much into outreach with the D.C. Parks and Recreation Department and volunteering on local district and section boards. She’s selfless. She’s genuine. And she’s given hope to so many kids and parents by giving them this game and a place to play.”